Lessons from the OPM breach

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The new report on the breaches at the Office of Personnel Management presents a template for how to design security to prevent future intrusions.

When the data breaches at the Office of Personnel Management were revealed in 2015, it took some time for people to come to terms with the damage that had been wrought. In the end, over 20 million government employee and contractor records were compromised and OPM executives lost their jobs. It may be years before  everything gets sorted out.

The report released Sept. 7 by the Republican majority staff of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform  claims that the loss of background investigation information and fingerprint data “will harm counterintelligence efforts for at least a generation to come.”

That’s unlikely to be the last word. The Democrats on the committee have already rejected at least some part of the report, claiming factual deficiencies and insufficient blame attached to federal contractors. OPM asserts the report doesn’t reflect how much progress it has made on security since the breaches were discovered.

Nevertheless, the report is the most comprehensive official account to date of what happened at OPM, and in its details it presents what could turn out to be both a model for what not to do and a template for how to design security to prevent future breaches.

The first lesson: When you get advice from knowledgeable sources, you should really take it. As far back as 2005, the OPM inspector general warned that agency data was vulnerable to hackers. The risk was upgraded to a “significant deficiency” in 2014. Even as recently as November 2015, months after the breach was revealed, the IG was still complaining that OPM was not meeting the requirements of the Federal Information Security Management  Act and that the agency’s IT security program wasn’t in compliance.

Then look at the failure to implement basic security requirements, even when the mandate for doing so had been around for a while. OPM used multifactor authentication for only a very small fraction of its staff, despite a policy from the Office of Management and Budget issued several years before the breach. OPM also allowed key IT systems to operate without a security assessment and a valid authority to operate.

There’s also a lesson to be learned about overconfidence. The DHS Computer Emergency Response Team notified OPM as early as March 2014 that someone was snatching data from its network. The OPM then monitored that hacker for two months to get a better idea of the threat.

Fair enough, except that by focusing on that first hacker, OPM missed another who, posing as a contractor, installed malware and created a backdoor. The agency eventually tackled the threat posed by the first hacker, but the second hacker went unnoticed and remained in the system. OPM thought it had cleared its systems, but it overlooked the remaining hacker who successfully stole data.

“Had OPM implemented basic, required security controls and more expeditiously deployed cutting edge security tools when they first learned hackers were targeting such sensitive data,” the House report said, “they could have significantly delayed, potentially prevented or significantly mitigated the theft.”

In fact, the agency did use tools from Cylance Inc., but only after the breach caused by the second hacker was identified. In just the six weeks following that discovery, from April 16, 2015 through to the end of May, the tools “consistently detected malicious code and other threats to OPM,” the report said. Unfortunately OPM’s security director had recommended using the Cylance tools way back in March 2014, after the discovery of the first hack.

OPM, to its credit, seems to have hustled to repair both its security and, though it may take a long time, its reputation. Acting Director Beth Cobert has laid out a series of steps the agency has taken, including imposing multifactor authentication for anyone accessing the agency network, shoring up the web-based systems used to get information for employee background investigation, implementing the government’s continuous monitoring program and working with the Defense Department to construct a new IT infrastructure for background checks.

Notably, OPM has also brought on a “senior cybersecurity advisor” who reports directly to OPM’s director, among a number of other IT and security changes. It’s also centralized cybersecurity resources and responsibilities under a new chief information security officer.

That’s as important as any security technology OPM will use. As the House reports notes, the breaches at OPM represent “a failure of culture and leadership, not technology.” The security tools that could have prevented the breaches were available, but OPM failed to recognize their importance.

Though the OPM hack itself is over, it could take years for the repercussions to subside, particularly the ongoing threat to government employees because of the personal information that was stolen. It could also cause lasting damage to U.S. counterintelligence efforts.

The publication of the House report, and its damning details, should lead to major reforms in how agencies tackle cybersecurity. If those reforms don’t come about after what is widely considered one of the biggest security failures ever, then you have to wonder what it will take.

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